Published — Sunday 20 April 2014
A series of recent interviews given by Syrian authorities to foreign journalists visiting Damascus at the invitation of the government, have given the erroneous impression that the forces of President Bashar Assad are winning the civil war, which entered its fourth year in March and has killed more than 150,000 Syrians.
This could not be further from the truth. This is a propaganda campaign to paint Assad and his acolytes as modern and secular saviors of a besieged and destroyed republic, in most part it should be noted by the regime itself with its heavy weaponry. In the jargon of the regime the rebels are constantly referred to as “terrorists,” an obvious attempt to denigrate and delegitimize them. That word is key. In all interviews with leaders of the Assad regime that I have read, they always refer to the rebels as terrorists of the 13th Century who want to take Syria back to the darkness of the Middle Ages.
The truth is much more nuanced: There are the secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army, while other rebels are moderate Muslims, and there are the extremists linked to Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately it is much easier for the western mind to cram all the rebels together and insult them all by calling them “medieval terrorists.”
But this was the strategy of the Assad regime from the beginning: To paint Bashar and his wife Asma as icons of modernity. “Look,” exclaim breathless articles about the most stylish couple of the Arab world, “she is so stylish and is not covered! And her husband likes to read electronic books!”
It is true that the regimes of the Assads (father and son) have been assiduously secular since the days of Bashar’s father Hafiz, who came to power through a coup in 1970. This is partly because the Assad family was never very religious. Syrian Christians, a minority in Sunni Muslim-majority country, have always been well protected by the Assads. This explains why most of the descendants of Syrians in Brazil, who are Christians and not Muslims, tend to support Assad and are silent about the indiscriminate killing by government forces. The barrel bombs used by the forces of the Assad regime have been especially brutal and indiscriminate in whom they kill and maim. Filled with explosives, nails and pieces of metal, these bombs are dropped from military helicopters flying low over residential areas. Used this way, the bombs kill every living thing in their extensive radius of destruction, be they civilian or rebel. A Syrian group, the Violations Documentation Center, estimates that 2,321 civilians have been killed by barrel bombs in Aleppo since the beginning of this air campaign in November 2013.
The economic cost of this civil war has also been devastating to Syria, with unemployment hitting 49 percent. Economic indicators show that it could take up to 30 years for the Syrian economy to fully recover and return to growth levels it had before the war, said Alex Pollack, director of microfinance in Relief and Works Agency UN.
Mercy Corps, an NGO that provides assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, estimates that half of the child population of Syria is not in school and that 7.9 million Syrians have fallen into poverty because of the economic collapse and that of this number of new poor, 4.4 million live in extreme poverty without being able to meet their own basic needs.
Syrian refugees have already reached 6.5 million, with at least a million of them in Lebanon. There they live in tents in squalid refugee camps, or try to pay rents reaching $ 200 a month in decrepit apartments rented to them by Lebanese owners who prey on their misery and despair.
It is regrettable that Russia has consistently protected the Assad regime at the UN Security Council with its veto of resolutions that would force Bashar to the negotiating table and his eventual renunciation of power. Since there is no willpower on the part of US President Barack Obama to use force against the Assad regime, we will sadly have to wait longer and witness more deaths of innocent Syrians before a solution is reached. In the meantime, it would be advisable if the officials of the Assad regime stopped calling the rebels terrorists. After all, they are all Syrians and the rebels are fighting to oust a corrupt and bloody dictatorship that has exploited Syria and Syrians for far too long.
– The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.